Five years ago, Beech’s Fine Chocolates was threatened with closure. The company had been making traditional British chocolates at its factory in the centre of Preston, Lancashire since 1920 but a combination of a bleak economic climate and competition from cheap imports meant that this Preston institution was close to shutting its doors.
Then Andrew Whiting and Robert White stepped in. Now employing more than 40 permanent staff, some of whom have worked at the factory for more than three decades, the former loss-making firm has turned its fortunes around thanks to new management and a contract with Marks & Spencer for, among other products, its own brand Chocolate Brazils, After Dinner Mints and Rose and Violet Creams. Beech’s admits that M&S has been “the saviour of the business and its workforce”.
“I have a long history of working with previous companies like Thorntons, Bendicks of Mayfair and so on,” says Whiting, chairman of Beech’s. “So, with lots of experience in chocolate making I’d decided to look around for a possible acquisition of a company which could be turned around. I found Beech’s and bought it with two other guys [in 2004]. Then five years ago I became the majority shareholder.”
According to Whiting, the most important thing was to retain the integrity and quality of the chocolate. So, he took out all non-natural ingredients.
“We forged links with the Vegan Society and we now have a range of chocolates that are vegan. We don’t use any animal products anyway in our chocolates. But the biggest change has been our relationship with M&S. Without that contract, it wouldn’t have been possible to turn Beech’s around and into the company it is now.”
For the last two years, Beech’s has been in profit and there are plans to build on this success.
Whiting explains: “The fabric of the building is quite old so we are going to refit the entire packing area roof. And there’s a major initiative to make sure the floors are screeded. We also have a plan to re-do the windows.”
As well as the lucrative contract with M&S, lots of small retailers sell Beech’s chocolates, including Mr Simms Olde Sweet Shop, a leading high street and online sweet store. Beech’s has also set up a website recently and is finding that a lot of its sales are generated on the web.
The use of the internet as a sales tool is a far cry from the firm’s beginnings back in 1920.
Beech’s was founded by Edward Collinson who chose Preston because it was a busy port with good road links for distribution to the rest of the country. His family already operated a chain of successful tea and grocery shops and his venture into chocolate-making appeared to him to be a logical next step At first, the chocolate products were sold at fairgrounds but, by the end of the Second World War, Collinson had successfully penetrated the top end of the luxury market – large department stores and most major, traditional retailers became stockists.
Beech’s remained in Collinson family hands until it was bought in 1966 by a family of Yorkshire wool merchants. They in turn sold the business to a Swiss group whose business interests in the chilled food sector had little in common with the ideal distribution for Beech’s chocolates. That’s when Whiting and his colleagues stepped in.
In line with a company that is rooted in Preston, the firm recruits from the surrounding area and is proud of its local workforce.
Although Beech’s is doing well now, it will not be resting on its laurels. Plans are afoot to expand its product range and it is keeping its eye out for future acquisitions. In the meantime, anyone buying one of its chocolate boxes can eat them safe in the knowledge that the recipe hasn’t changed in 94 years.
By Helen Nugent